'The Spiderwick Chronicles' is the rare fantasy film that presents its most fantastical elements as utter reality. Unlike so many films in this genre which overdo the "magic" to the point that nothing seems particularly special, 'Spiderwick Chronicles' grounds us in a universe that is so well-imagined, and so believable, that we are genuinely wowed when the extraordinary events finally unspool. Here is a charming and delightful family film that never takes its itself -- or us -- for granted.
Based on the famous book series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 'Spiderwick Chronicles' tells the tale of the Grace family, who move from New York to the secluded Spiderwick Estate, once home to their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Straithairn) and his daughter Lucinda ( . Initially, the Grace children, including young Jared (Freddie Highmore), his twin Simon (also Highmore) and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), are resistant to the Estate's charms, which is obvious in their thinly-veiled anger towards their single mother (Mary-Louise Parker). Then Jared stumbles into a secret room in the house, and discovers an ancient book, "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You." A portal to an invisible world of supernatural whimsy, Jared will have to help the forces of good that seek to protect the book (including a variety of creatures voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen) as he and his siblings explore the hidden mysteries of the unseen all around them.
Truth be told, 'Spiderwick Chronicles' doesn't do anything particularly new in terms of story. The hidden/visible perspective is a time-worn device often used in the genre, and the film's none-too-subtle theme of the fractured family restored through extraordinary circumstances has been mined for years by Steven Spielberg, but where 'Spiderwick' elevates itself is in its skilled handling of tone. Director Mark Waters ('Freaky Friday,' 'Mean Girls') doesn't overplay the fantasy, to the point that the early scenes feel so ordinary and domestic that we are thoroughly engaged before even a single special effect is splashed across the screen.
Of course, 'Spiderwick' is a fantasy film, so it does deliver all of the expected cool creatures and enjoyable setpieces. These, too, are handled adroitly, with a nice eye to giving even the minor monsters a personality and unique quirks. I particularly liked Hogsquel (Rogen), who has a penchant for birds, as well as Short's very short Thimbletack, who is one of the better creations to come along in a genre film since Dobby in the 'Harry Potter' franchise. Polished, and handsomely photographed, 'Spiderwick Chronicles' certainly looks great, and the mix of CGI, excellent production design and a wonderful location in the Spiderwick Estate makes for quite a wonderfully-realized universe.
'Spiderwick Chronicles' also boasts an excellent cast. Adult actors like Straithairn, Parker, and Short are a given, but in Highmore ('Finding Neverland,' 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'), we have one of the least obnoxious child actors to come along in years. Handling the dual roles of Jared and Simon with aplomb, he is able to create distinctive personalities, even acting against himself and blue screen like an old pro. Bolger is also a hoot, and one of the rare child performers who manages to make a purposely snarky character endearing -- somehow, Bolger understands that Mallory's sarcasm is borne of anger, which adds a surprising layer of poignancy to the familial melodrama. Though 'Spiderwick' never forgets what kind of film it is, for once in a family fantasy flick, we really understand and believe in the plight of the characters.
Will 'Spiderwick Chronicles' work for everyone? Probably not. Some may find even the muted sentimentality of the film too lightweight. There has also been criticism leveled at the movie by fans of the book series. Events are compressed, characters composited, and many key subplots have been reduced or eliminated. Having no knowledge of the novels, I went into 'Spiderwick Chronicles' blind, and simply on the level of taking the movie for what it is, I found it a spirited and enchanting ride. If you're looking for a film that is truly fun for the whole family (and doesn't condescend to either the adults or children in attendance), 'Spiderwick Chronicles' is well worth discovering.
Paramount brings 'Spiderwick Chronicles' to Blu-ray in a very nice 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1).
The source is spotless, with wonderful rich blacks and, for once, healthy contrast that's not overcooked. The level of detail is generally excellent, with the picture exhibiting great depth typical of the best high-def. Colors are somewhat inconsistent, however, with earlier passages a bit bland, while vibrant hues enliven the last third or so of the film. The palette is always stable, however, and fleshtones were usually accurate.
Nitpicks are led by a slightly dark cast to the presentation. Shadow delineation suffers slightly from a harsh black crush which obscures the finest details. There is also a tad bit of softness from time to time, though generally, the transfer is quite sharp. The encode is spiffy, however, with no compression artifacts or edge enhancement to report. All in all, 'Spiderwick Chronicles' looks very good indeed.
'Spiderwick Chronicles' gets an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit), which is a fine presentation of a slightly disappointing sound mix. I hoped this one would be more aggressive.
The surrounds throughout much of the film feel too reserved. Action is fairly immersive, with noticeable discrete effects and nice dispersion throughout the soundfield. However, ambiance is lacking, and a more sustained presence to minor effects and the score would have been quite welcome. Dynamics are as punchy as you would expect for a new, A-list studio effort, with very strong bass and excellent clarity throughout the frequency spectrum. Dialogue is airtight and well-rooted in the center, so even the more stylized voices sound great. Even if I wasn't completely blown away by the sound design of 'The Spiderwick Chronicles,' it delivers more often than not.
Hitting Blu-ray day-and-date with the DVD, there's a bevy of bonus material here. The quality of the making-of material is matched by the excellent 1080p/i/AVC MPEG-4 video, which looks great. (Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are offered on all of the non-promotional extras.)
'Spiderwick Chronicles' makes for lively and fanciful family entertainment, the type that for once entertains children and adults alike. Add in some neat visuals, solid performances, and an uplifting story, and you have one of the better fantasy-adventures Hollywood has produced lately. This Blu-ray is pretty spiffy, too, with strong video and audio, and a ton of supplements. 'Spiderwick Chronicles' is an easy recommend.